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Short Story Share~ The Chik Of The Easter Egg

The Chick of The Easter Egg

by William Dean Howells

“I had to say that while Easter eggs mostly hatched rabbits, there were instances in which they hatched other things, as, for instance, handfuls of eagles and half-eagles and double-eagles, especially in the case of the golden eggs that the goose laid. They knew all about that goose…”

An illustration for the story The Chick Of The Easter Egg by the author William Dean Howells
Easter Joys postcard, 1915

The old fellow who told that story of dream-transference on a sleeping-car at Christmas-time was again at the club on Easter Eve. Halson had put him up for the winter, under the easy rule we had, and he had taken very naturally to the Turkish room for his after-dinner coffee and cigar. We all rather liked him, though it was Minver’s pose to be critical of the simple friendliness with which he made himself at home among us, and to feign a wish that there were fewer trains between Boston and New York, so that old Newton (that was his name) could have a better chance of staying away. But we noticed that Minver was always a willing listener to Newton’s talk, and that he sometimes hospitably offered to share his tobacco with the Bostonian. When brought to book for his inconsistency by Rulledge, he said he was merely welcoming the new blood, if not young blood, that Newton was infusing into our body, which had grown anaemic on Wanhope’s psychology and Rulledge’s romance; or, anyway, it was a change.

Newton now began by saying abruptly, in a fashion he had, “We used to hear a good deal in Boston about your Easter Parade here in New York. Do you still keep it up?”

No one else answering, Minver replied, presently, “I believe it is still going on. I understand that it’s composed mostly of milliners out to see one another’s new hats, and generous Jewesses who are willing to contribute the ‘dark and bright’ of the beauty in which they walk to the observance of an alien faith. It’s rather astonishing how the synagogue takes to the feasts of the church. If it were not for that, I don’t know what would become of Christmas.”

“What do you mean by their walking in beauty?” Rulledge asked over his shoulder.

“I shall never have the measure of your ignorance, Rulledge. You don’t even know Byron’s lines on Hebrew loveliness?

“‘She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes.'”

“Pretty good,” Rulledge assented. “And they _are_ splendid, sometimes. But what has the Easter Parade got to do with it?” he asked Newton.

“Oh, only what everything has with everything else. I was thinking of Eastertime long ago and far away, and naturally I thought of Easter now and here. I saw your Parade once, and it seemed to me one of the great social spectacles. But you can’t keep anything in New York, if it’s good; if it’s bad, you can.”

“You come from Boston, I think you said, Mr. Newton,” Minver breathed blandly through his smoke.

“Oh, I’m not a _real_ Bostonian,” our guest replied. “I’m not abusing you on behalf of a city that I’m a native proprietor of. If I were, I shouldn’t perhaps make your decadent Easter Parade my point of attack, though I think it’s a pity to let it spoil. I came from a part of the country where we used to make a great deal of Easter, when we were boys, at least so far as eggs went. I don’t know whether the grown people observed the day then, and I don’t know whether the boys keep it now; I haven’t been back at Eastertime for several generations. But when I was a boy it was a serious thing. In that soft Southwestern latitude, the grass had pretty well greened up by Easter, even when it came in March, and grass colors eggs a very nice yellow; it used to worry me that it didn’t color them green. When the grass hadn’t got along far enough, winter wheat would do as well. I don’t remember what color onion husks would give; but we used onion husks, too. Some mothers would let the boys get logwood from the drugstore, and that made the eggs a fine, bold purplish black. But the greatest egg of all was a calico egg, that you got by coaxing your grandmother (your mother’s mother) or your aunt (your mother’s sister) to sew up in a tight cover of brilliant calico. When that was boiled long enough the colors came off in a perfect pattern on the egg. Very few boys could get such eggs; when they did, they put them away in bureau drawers till they ripened and the mothers smelt them and threw them out of the window as quickly as possible. Always, after breakfast, Easter Morning, we came out on the street and fought eggs. We pitted the little ends of the eggs against one another, and the fellow whose egg cracked the other fellow’s egg won it, and he carried it off. I remember grass and wheat-colored eggs in such trials of strength, and onion and logwood colored eggs; but never calico eggs; _they_ were too precious to be risked; it would have seemed wicked.

“I don’t know,” the Boston man went musingly on, “why I should remember these things so relentlessly; I’ve forgotten all the important things that happened to me then; but perhaps these were the important things. Who knows? I only know I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Easter, not so much because of the calico eggs, perhaps, as because of the grandmothers and the aunts. I suppose the simple life is full of such aunts and grandmothers still; but you don’t find them in hotel apartments, or even in flats consisting of seven large, light rooms and bath.” We all recognized the language of the advertisements, and laughed in sympathy with our guest, who perhaps laughed out of proportion with a pleasantry of that size.

When he had subdued his mirth, he resumed at a point apparently very remote from that where he had started.

“There was one of those winters in Cambridge, where I lived then, that seemed tougher than any other we could remember, and they were all pretty tough winters there in those times. There were forty snowfalls between Thanksgiving and Fast Day–you don’t know what Fast Day is in New York, and we didn’t, either, as far as the fasting went–and the cold kept on and on till we couldn’t, or said we couldn’t, stand it any longer. So, along about the middle of March somewhere, we picked up the children and started south. In those days New York seemed pretty far south to us; and when we got here we found everything on wheels that we had left on runners in Boston. But the next day it began to snow, and we said we must go a little farther to meet the spring. I don’t know exactly what it was made us pitch on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; but we had a notion we should find it interesting, and, at any rate, a total change from our old environment. We had been reading something about the Moravians, and we knew that it was the capital of Moravianism, with the largest Moravian congregation in the world; I think it was Longfellow’s ‘Hymn of the Moravian Nuns’ that set us to reading about the sect; and we had somehow heard that the Sun Inn, at Bethlehem, was the finest old-fashioned public house anywhere. At any rate, we had the faith of our youthful years, and we put out for Bethlehem.

“We arrived just at dusk, but not so late that we couldn’t see the hospitable figure of a man coming out of the Sun to meet us at the omnibus door and to shake hands with each of us. It was the very pleasantest and sweetest welcome we ever had at a public house; and though we found the Sun a large, modern hotel, we easily accepted the landlord’s assurance that the old Inn was built up inside of the hotel, just as it was when Washington stayed in it; and after a mighty good supper we went to our rooms, which were piping warm from two good base-burner stoves. It was not exactly the vernal air we had expected of Bethlehem when we left New York; but you can’t have everything in this world, and, with the snowbanks along the streets outside, we were very glad to have the base-burners.

“We went to bed pretty early, and I fell into one of those exemplary sleeps that begin with no margin of waking after your head touches the pillow, or before that, even, and I woke from a dream of heavenly music that translated itself into the earthly notes of bugles. It made me sit up with the instant realization that we had arrived in Bethlehem on Easter Eve, and that this was Easter Morning. We had read of the beautiful observance of the feast by the Moravians, and, while I was hurrying on my clothes beside my faithful base-burner, I kept quite superfluously wondering at myself for not having thought of it, and so made sure of being called. I had waked just in time, though I hadn’t deserved to do so, and ought, by right, to have missed it all. I tried to make my wife come with me; but after the family is of a certain size a woman, if she is a real woman, thinks her husband can see things for her, and generally sends him out to reconnoitre and report. Besides, my wife couldn’t have left the children without waking them, to tell them she was going, and then all five of them would have wanted to come with us, including the baby; and we should have had no end of a time convincing them of the impossibility. We were a good deal bound up in the children, and we hated to lie to them when we could possibly avoid it. So I went alone.

“I asked the night porter, who was still on duty, the way I wanted to take, but there were so many people in the streets going the same direction that I couldn’t have missed it, anyhow; and pretty soon we came to the old Moravian cemetery, which was in the heart of the town; and there we found most of the Moravian congregation drawn up on three sides of the square, waiting and facing the east, which was beginning to redden. Of all the cemeteries I have seen, that was the most beautiful, because it was the simplest and humblest. Generally a cemetery is a dreadful place, with headstones and footstones and shafts and tombs scattered about, and looking like a field full of granite and marble stumps from the clearing of a petrified forest. But here all the memorial tablets lay flat with the earth. None of the dead were assumed to be worthier of remembrance than another; they all rested at regular intervals, with their tablets on their breasts, like shields, in their sleep after the battle of life. I was thinking how right and wise this was, and feeling the purity of the conception like a quality of the keen, clear air of the morning, which seemed to be breathing straight from the sky, when suddenly the sun blazed up from the horizon like a fire, and the instant it appeared the horns of the band began to blow and the people burst into a hymn–a thousand voices, for all I know. It was the sublimest thing I ever heard, and I don’t know that there’s anything to match it for dignity and solemnity in any religious rite. It made the tears come, for I thought how those people were of a church of missionaries and martyrs from the beginning, and I felt as if I were standing in sight and hearing of the first Christians after Christ. It was as if He were risen there ‘in the midst of them.'”

Rulledge looked round on the rest of us, with an air of acquiring merit from the Bostonian’s poetry, but Minver’s gravity was proof against the chance of mocking Rulledge, and I think we all felt alike. Wanhope seemed especially interested, though he said nothing.

“When I went home, I told my wife about it as well as I could, but, though she entered into the spirit of it, she was rather preoccupied. The children had all wakened, as they did sometimes, in a body, and were storming joyfully around the rooms, as if it were Christmas; and she was trying to get them dressed. ‘Do tell them what Easter is like; they’ve never seen it kept before,’ she said; and I tried to do so, while I took a hand, as a young father will, and tried to get them into their clothes. I don’t think I dwelt much on the religious observance of the day, but I dug up some of my profane associations with it in early life, and told them about coloring eggs, and fighting them, and all that; there in New England, in those days, they had never seen or heard of such a thing as an Easter egg.

“I don’t think my reminiscences quieted them much. They were all on fire–the oldest hoy and girl, and the twins, and even the two-year-old that we called the baby–to go out and buy some eggs and get the landlord to let them color them in the hotel kitchen. I had a deal of ado to make them wait till after breakfast, but I managed, somehow; and when we had finished–it was a mighty good Pennsylvania breakfast, such as we could eat with impunity in those halcyon days: rich coffee, steak, sausage, eggs, apple butter, buckwheat cakes and maple syrup–we got their out-door togs on them, while they were all stamping and shouting round and had to be caught and overcoated, and fur-capped and hooded simultaneously, and managed to get them into the street together. Ever been in Bethlehem?”

We all had to own our neglect of this piece of travel; and Newton, after a moment of silent forgiveness, said:

“Well, I don’t know how it is now, but twenty-five or thirty years ago it was the most interesting town in America. It wasn’t the old Moravian community that it had been twenty-five years before that, when none but Moravians could buy property there; but it was like the Sun Hotel, and just as that had grown round and over the old Sun Inn, the prosperous manufacturing town, with its iron-foundries and zinc-foundries, and all the rest of it, had grown round and over the original Moravian village. If you wanted a breath of perfect strangeness, with an American quality in it at the same time, you couldn’t have gone to any place where you could have had it on such terms as you could in Bethlehem. I can’t begin to go into details, but one thing was hearing German spoken everywhere in the street: not the German of Germany, but the Pennsylvania German, with its broad vowels and broken-down grammatical forms, and its English vocables and interjections, which you caught in the sentences which came to you, like _av coorse_, and _yes_ and _no_ for _ja_ and _nein_. There were stores where they spoke no English, and others where they made a specialty of it; and I suppose when we sallied out that bright Sunday morning, with the baby holding onto a hand of each of us between us, and the twins going in front with their brother and sister, we were almost as foreign as we should have been in a village on the Rhine or the Elbe.

“We got a little acquainted with the people, after a while, and I heard some stories of the country folks that I thought were rather good. One was about an old German farmer on whose land a prospecting metallurgist found zinc ore; the scientific man brought him the bright yellow button by which the zinc proved its existence in its union with copper, and the old fellow asked in an awestricken whisper: ‘Is it a gold-mine?’ ‘No, no. Guess again.’ ‘Then it’s a _brass-mine_!’ But before they began to find zinc there in the lovely Lehigh Valley–you can stand by an open zinc-mine and look down into it where the rock and earth are left standing, and you seem to be looking down into a range of sharp mountain peaks and pinnacles–it was the richest farming region in the whole fat State of Pennsylvania; and there was a young farmer who owned a vast tract of it, and who went to fetch home a young wife from Philadelphia way, somewhere. He drove there and back in his own buggy, and when he reached the top overlooking the valley, with his bride, he stopped his horse, and pointed with his whip. ‘There,’ he said, ‘as far as the sky is blue, it’s all ours!’ I thought that was fine.”

“Fine?” I couldn’t help bursting out; “it’s a stroke of poetry.”

Minver cut in: “The thrifty Acton making a note of it for future use in literature.”

“Eh!” Newton queried. “Oh! I don’t mind. You’re welcome to it, Mr. Acton. It’s a pity somebody shouldn’t use it, and of course _I_ can’t.”

“Acton will send you a copy with the usual forty-per-cent. discount and ten off for cash,” the painter said.

They had their little laugh at my expense, and then Newton took up his tale again. “Well, as I was saying–By the way, what _was_ I am saying?”

The story loving Rulledge remembered. “You went out with your wife and children for Easter eggs.”

“Oh yes. Thank you. Well, of course, in a town geographically American, the shops were all shut on Sunday, and we couldn’t buy even an Easter egg on Easter Sunday. But one of the stores had the shade of its show-window up, and the children simply glued themselves to it in such a fascination that we could hardly unstick them. That window was full of all kinds of Easter things–I don’t remember what all; but there were Easter eggs in every imaginable color and pattern, and besides these, there were whole troops of toy rabbits. I had forgotten that the natural offspring of Easter eggs is rabbits, but I took a brace, remembered the fact, and announced it to the children. They immediately demanded an explanation, with all sorts of scientific, which I gave them, as reckless of the truth as I thought my wife would suffer without contradicting me. I had to say that while Easter eggs mostly hatched rabbits, there were instances in which they hatched other things, as, for instance, handfuls of eagles and half-eagles and double-eagles, especially in the case of the golden eggs that the goose laid. They knew all about that goose; but I had to tell them what those unfamiliar pieces of American coinage were and promise to give them one each when they grew up if they were good. That only partially satisfied them, and they wanted to know specifically what other kinds of things Easter eggs would hatch if properly treated. Each one had a preference; the baby always preferred what the last one said; and _she_ wanted an ostrich, the same as her big brother; he was seven then.

“I don’t really know how we lived through the day; I mean the children, for my wife and I went to the Moravian church, and had a good long Sunday nap in the afternoon, while the children were pining for Monday morning, when they could buy eggs and begin to color them, so that they could hatch just the right kind of Easter things. When I woke up I had to fall in with a theory they had agreed to between them that any kind of two-legged or four-legged chick that hatched from an Easter egg would wear the same color, or the same kind of spots or stripes, that the egg had.

“I found that they had arranged to have calico eggs, and they were going to have their mother cover them with the same sort of cotton prints that I had said my grandmother and aunts used, and they meant to buy the calico in the morning at the same time that they bought the eggs. We had some tin vessels of water on our stoves to take the dryness out of the hot air, and they had decided that they would boil their eggs in these, and not trouble the landlord for the use of his kitchen.

“There was nothing in this scheme wanting but their mother’s consent–I agreed to it on the spot–but when she understood that they each expected to have two eggs apiece, with one apiece for us, she said she never could cover a dozen eggs in the world, and that the only way would be for them to go in the morning with us, and choose each the handsomest egg they could out of the eggs in that shop-window. They met this proposition rather blankly at first; but on reflection the big brother said it would be a shame to spoil mamma’s Easter by making her work all day, and besides it would keep till that night, anyway, before they could begin to have any fun with their eggs; and then the rest all said the same thing, ending with the baby: and accepted the inevitable with joy, and set about living through the day as well as they could.

“They had us up pretty early the next morning–that is, they had me up; their mother said that I had brought it on myself, and richly deserved it for exciting their imaginations, and I had to go out with the two oldest and the twins to choose the eggs; we got off from the baby by promising to let her have two, and she didn’t understand very well, anyway, and was awfully sleepy. We were a pretty long time choosing the six eggs, and I don’t remember now just what they were; but they were certainly joyous eggs; and–By the way, I don’t know why I’m boring a brand of hardened bachelors like you with all these domestic details?”

“Oh, don’t mind _us_,” Minver responded to his general appeal. “We may not understand the feelings of a father, but we are all mothers at heart, especially Rulledge. Go on. It’s very exciting,” he urged, not very ironically, and Newton went on.

“Well, I don’t believe I could say just how the havoc began. They put away their eggs very carefully after they had made their mother admire them, and shown the baby how hers were the prettiest, and they each said in succession that they must be very precious of them, for if you shook an egg, or anything, it wouldn’t hatch; and it was their plan to take these home and set an unemployed pullet, belonging to the big brother, to hatching them in the coop that he had built of laths for her in the back yard with his own hands. But long before the afternoon was over, the evil one had entered Eden, and tempted the boy to try fighting eggs with these treasured specimens, as I had told we boys used to fight eggs in my town in the southwest. He held a conquering course through the encounter with three eggs, but met his Waterloo with a regular Bluecher belonging to the baby. Then he instantly changed sides; and smashed his Bluecher against the last egg left. By that time all the other children were in tears, the baby roaring powerfully in ignorant sympathy, and the victor steeped in silent gloom. His mother made him gather up the ruins from the floor, and put them in the stove, and she took possession of the victorious egg, and said she would keep it till we got back to Cambridge herself, and not let one of them touch it. I can tell you it was a tragical time. I wanted to go out and buy them another set of eggs, and spring them for a surprise on them in the morning, after they had suffered enough that night. But she said that if I dared to dream of such a thing–which would be the ruin of the children’s character, by taking away the consequences of their folly–she should do, she did not know what, to me. Of course she was right, and I gave in, and helped the children forget all about it, so that by the time we got back to Cambridge I had forgotten about it myself.

“I don’t know what it was reminded the boy of that remaining Easter egg unless it was the sight of the unemployed pullet in her coop, which he visited the first thing; and I don’t know how he managed to wheedle his mother out of it; but the first night after I came home from business–it was rather late and the children had gone to bed–she told me that ridiculous boy, as she called him in self-exculpation, had actually put the egg under his pullet, and all the children were wild to see what it would hatch. ‘And now,’ she said, severely, ‘what are you going to do? You have filled their heads with those ideas, and I suppose you will have to invent some nonsense or other to fool them, and make them believe that it has hatched a giraffe, or an elephant, or something; they won’t be satisfied with anything less.’ I said we should have to try something smaller, for I didn’t think we could manage a chick of that size on our lot; and that I should trust in Providence. Then she said it was all very well to laugh; and that I couldn’t get out of it that way, and I needn’t think it.

“I didn’t, much. But the children understood that it took three weeks for an egg to hatch, and anyway the pullet was so intermittent in her attentions to the Easter egg, only sitting on it at night, or when held down by hand in the day, that there was plenty of time. One evening when I came out from Boston, I was met by a doleful deputation at the front gate, with the news that when the coop was visited that morning after breakfast–they visited the coop every morning before they went to school–the pullet was found perched on a cross-bar in a high state of nerves, and the shell of the Easter egg broken and entirely eaten out. Probably a rat had got in and done it, or, more hopefully, a mink, such as used to attack eggs in the town where I was a boy. We went out and viewed the wreck, as a first step towards a better situation; and suddenly a thought struck me. ‘Children,’ I said, ‘what did you really expect that egg to hatch, anyway?’ They looked askance at one another, and at last the boy said: ‘Well, you know, papa, an egg that’s been cooked–‘ And then we all laughed together, and I knew they had been making believe as much as I had, and no more expected the impossible of a boiled egg than I did.”

“That was charming!” Wanhope broke out. “There is nothing more interesting than the way children join in hypnotizing themselves with the illusions which their parents think _they_ have created without their help. In fact, it is very doubtful whether at any age we have any illusions except those of our own creation; we–“

“Let him go on, Wanhope,” Minver dictated; and Newton continued.

“It was rather nice. I asked them if their mother knew about the egg; and they said that of course they couldn’t help telling her; and I said: ‘Well, then, I’ll tell you what: we must make her believe that the chick hatched out and got away–‘ The boy stopped me: ‘Do you think that would be exactly true, papa?’ ‘Well, not _exactly_ true; but it’s only for the time being. We can tell her the exact truth afterwards,’ and then I laid my plan before them. They said it was perfectly splendid, and would be the greatest kind of joke on mamma, and one that she would like as much as anybody. The thing was to keep it from her till it was done, and they all promised that they wouldn’t tell; but I could see that they were bursting with the secret the whole evening.

“The next day was Saturday, when I always went home early, and I had the two oldest children come in with the second-girl, who left them to take lunch with me. They had chocolate and ice-cream, and after lunch we went around to a milliner’s shop in West Street, where my wife and I had stopped a long five minutes the week before we went to Bethlehem, adoring an Easter bonnet that we saw in the window. I wanted her to buy it; but she said, No, if we were going that expensive journey, we couldn’t afford it, and she must do without, that spring. I showed it to them, and ‘Now, children,’ I said, ‘what do you think of that for the chick that your Easter egg hatched?’ And they said it was the most beautiful bonnet they had ever seen, and it would just exactly suit mamma. But I saw they were holding something back, and I said, sharply, ‘Well?’ and they both guiltily faltered out: ‘The _bird_, you know, papa,’ and I remembered that they belonged to the society of Bird Defenders, who in that day were pledged against the decorative use of dead birds or killing them for anything but food. ‘Why, confound it,’ I said, ‘the bird is the very thing that makes it an Easter-egg chick!’ but I saw that their honest little hearts were troubled, and I said again: ‘Confound it! Let’s go in and hear what the milliner has to say.’ Well, the long and short of it was that the milliner tried a bunch of forget-me-nots over the bluebird that we all agreed was a thousand times better, and that if it were substituted would only cost three dollars more, and we took our Easter-egg chick home in a blaze of glory, the children carrying the bandbox by the string between them.

“Of course we had a great time opening it, and their mother acted her part so well that I knew she was acting, and after the little ones were in bed I taxed her with it. ‘Know? Of course I knew!’ she said. ‘Did you think they would let you _deceive_ me? They’re true New-Englanders, and they told me all about it last night, when I was saying their prayers with them.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘they let you deceive _me_; they must be true Westerners, too, for they didn’t tell me a word of your knowing.’ I rather had her there, but she said: ‘Oh, you goose–‘ We were young people in those days, and goose meant everything. But, really, I’m ashamed of getting off all this to you hardened bachelors, as I said before–“

“If you tell many more such stories in this club,” Minver said, severely, “you won’t leave a bachelor’s in it. And Rulledge will be the first to get married.”

The Chick Of The Easter Egg was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Sun, Apr 21, 2019

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Emancipation, A Life Fable

Emancipation. A Life Fable

by Kate Chopin

Emancipation: A Life Fable is featured in our Feminist Literature – Study Guide

An illustration for the story Emancipation. A Life Fable by the author Kate Chopin

There was once an animal born into this world, and opening his eyes upon Life, he saw above and about him confining walls, and before him were bars of iron through which came air and light from without; this animal was born in a cage.

Here he grew and throve in strength and beauty under the care of an invisible protecting hand. Hungering, food was ever at hand. When he thirsted water was brought, and when he felt the need to rest, there was provided a bed of straw upon which to lie; and here he found it good, licking his handsome flanks, to bask in the sunbeam that he thought existed but to lighten his home.

Awaking one day from his slothful rest, lo! the door of his cage stood open: accident had opened it. In the corner, he crouched, wondering and fearingly. Then slowly did he approach the door, dreading the unaccustomed, and would have closed it, but for such a task his limbs were purposeless. So out the opening, he thrust his head, to see the canopy of the sky grow broader, and the world waxing wider.

Back to his corner but not to rest, for the spell of the Unknown was over him, and again and again, he goes to the open door, seeing each time more Light.

Then one time standing in the flood of it; a deep indrawn breath – a bracing of strong limbs, and with a bound, he was gone.

On the rushes, in his mad flight, heedless that he is wounding and tearing his sleek sides – seeing, smelling, touching of all things; even stopping to put his lips to the noxious pool, thinking it may be sweet.

Hungering there is no food but such as he must seek and ofttimes fight for; and his limbs are weighted before he reaches the water that is good to his thirsting throat.

So does he live, seeking, finding, joying and suffering. The door which accident had opened is opened still, but the cage remains forever empty!

Emancipation. A Life Fable was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Mon, May 15, 2017

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Short Story Share

A Telephonic Conversation

by Mark Twain

An illustration for the story A Telephonic Conversation by the author Mark Twain

Consider that a conversation by telephone–when you are simply sitting by and not taking any part in that conversation–is one of the solemnest curiosities of modern life. Yesterday I was writing a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was going on in the room. I notice that one can always write best when somebody is talking through a telephone close by. Well, the thing began in this way. A member of our household came in and asked me to have our house put into communication with Mr. Bagley’s downtown. I have observed, in many cities, that the sex always shrink from calling up the central office themselves. I don’t know why, but they do. So I touched the bell, and this talk ensued:

CENTRAL OFFICE. (gruffy.) Hello!

I. Is it the Central Office?

C. O. Of course it is. What do you want?

I. Will you switch me on to the Bagleys, please?

C. O. All right. Just keep your ear to the telephone.

Then I heard k-look, k-look, k’look–klook-klook-klook-look-look! then a horrible “gritting” of teeth, and finally a piping female voice: Y-e-s? (rising inflection.) Did you wish to speak to me?

Without answering, I handed the telephone to the applicant, and sat down. Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world– a conversation with only one end of it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise or sorrow or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says. Well, I heard the following remarkable series of observations, all from the one tongue, and all shouted– for you can’t ever persuade the sex to speak gently into a telephone:

Yes? Why, how did that happen?


What did you say?


Oh no, I don’t think it was.


No! Oh no, I didn’t mean that. I meant, put it in while it is still boiling–or just before it comes to a boil.




I turned it over with a backstitch on the selvage edge.


Yes, I like that way, too; but I think it’s better to baste it on with Valenciennes or bombazine, or something of that sort. It gives it such an air–and attracts so much noise.


It’s forty-ninth Deuteronomy, sixty-forth to ninety-seventh inclusive. I think we ought all to read it often.


Perhaps so; I generally use a hair pin.


What did you say? (aside.) Children, do be quiet!


Oh! B flat! Dear me, I thought you said it was the cat!


Since when?


Why, I never heard of it.


You astound me! It seems utterly impossible!


Who did?


Good-ness gracious!


Well, what is this world coming to? Was it right in church?


And was her mother there?


Why, Mrs. Bagley, I should have died of humiliation! What did they do?

Long pause.

I can’t be perfectly sure, because I haven’t the notes by me; but I think it goes something like this: te-rolly-loll-loll, loll lolly-loll-loll, O tolly-loll-loll-lee-ly-li-I-do! And then repeat, you know.


Yes, I think it is very sweet–and very solemn and impressive, if you get the andantino and the pianissimo right.


Oh, gum-drops, gum-drops! But I never allow them to eat striped candy. And of course they can’t, till they get their teeth, anyway.




Oh, not in the least–go right on. He’s here writing–it doesn’t bother him.


Very well, I’ll come if I can. (aside.) Dear me, how it does tire a person’s arm to hold this thing up so long! I wish she’d–


Oh no, not at all; I like to talk–but I’m afraid I’m keeping you from your affairs.




No, we never use butter on them.


Yes, that is a very good way; but all the cook-books say they are very unhealthy when they are out of season. And he doesn’t like them, anyway–especially canned.


Oh, I think that is too high for them; we have never paid over fifty cents a bunch.


Must you go? Well, good-by.


Yes, I think so. Good-by.


Four o’clock, then–I’ll be ready. Good-by.


Thank you ever so much. Good-by.


Oh, not at all!–just as fresh–which? Oh, I’m glad to hear you say that. Good-by.

(Hangs up the telephone and says, “Oh, it does tire a person’s arm so!”)

A man delivers a single brutal “Good-by,” and that is the end of it. Not so with the gentle sex–I say it in their praise; they cannot abide abruptness.

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The Aged Mother

by Matsuo Basho

Also known as The Story of the Aged Mother, this Japanese folktale tells the story of an unkind ruler who issues cruel orders, including one demand that all old folks are to be abandoned and left to die. Basho tells a poignant story about a mother and her son and their love for one another.

An illustration for the story The Aged Mother by the author Matsuo Basho
Yoshitoshi, The moon and the abandoned old woman, 1892

Long, long ago there lived at the foot of the mountain a poor farmer and his aged, widowed mother. They owned a bit of land which supplied them with food, and they were humble, peaceful, and happy.

Shining was governed by a despotic leader who though a warrior, had a great and cowardly shrinking from anything suggestive of failing health and strength. This caused him to send out a cruel proclamation. The entire province was given strict orders to immediately put to death all aged people. Those were barbarous days, and the custom of abandoning old people to die was not uncommon. The poor farmer loved his aged mother with tender reverence, and the order filled his heart with sorrow. But no one ever thought twice about obeying the mandate of the governor, so with many deep and hopeless sighs, the youth prepared for what at that time was considered the kindest mode of death.

Just at sundown, when his day’s work was ended, he took a quantity of unwhitened rice which was the principal food for the poor, and he cooked, dried it, and tied it in a square cloth, which he swung in a bundle around his neck along with a gourd filled with cool, sweet water. Then he lifted his helpless old mother to his back and started on his painful journey up the mountain. The road was long and steep; the narrow road was crossed and re-crossed by many paths made by the hunters and woodcutters. In some place, they lost and confues, but he gave no heed. One path or another, it mattered not. On he went, climbing blindly upward — ever upward towards the high bare summit of what is known as Obatsuyama, the mountain of the “abandoning of the aged.”

The eyes of the old mother were not so dim but that they noted the reckless hastening from one path to another, and her loving heart grew anxious. Her son did not know the mountain’s many paths and his return might be one of danger, so she stretched forth her hand and snapping the twigs from brushes as they passed, she quietly dropped a handful every few steps of the way so that as they climbed, the narrow path behind them was dotted at frequent intervals with tiny piles of twigs. At last the summit was reached. Weary and heart sick, the youth gently released his burden and silently prepared a place of comfort as his last duty to the loved one. Gathering fallen pine needles, he made a soft cushion and tenderly lifted his old mother onto it. Hew rapped her padded coat more closely about the stooping shoulders and with tearful eyes and an aching heart he said farewell.

The trembling mother’s voice was full of unselfish love as she gave her last injunction. “Let not thine eyes be blinded, my son.” She said. “The mountain road is full of dangers. LOOK carefully and follow the path which holds the piles of twigs. They will guide you to the familiar path farther down”. The son’s surprised eyes looked back over the path, then at the poor old, shriveled hands all scratched and soiled by their work of love. His heart broke within and bowing to the ground, he cried aloud: “oh, Honorable mother, your kindness breaks my heart! I will not leave you. Together we will follow the path of twigs, and together we will die!”

Once more he shouldered his burden (how light it seemed now) and hastened down the path, through the shadows and the moonlight, to the little hut in the valley. Beneath the kitchen floor was a walled closet for food, which was covered and hidden from view. There the son hid his mother, supplying her with everything she needed, continually watching and fearing she would be discovered. Time passed, and he was beginning to feel safe when again the governor sent forth heralds bearing an unreasonable order, seemingly as a boast of his power. His demand was that his subjects should present him with a rope of ashes.

The entire province trembled with dread. The order must be obeyed yet who in all Shining could make a rope of ashes? One night, in great distress, the son whispered the news to his hidden mother. “Wait!” she said. “I will think. I will think” On the second day she told him what to do. “Make rope of twisted straw,” she said. “Then stretch it upon a row of flat stones and burn it on a windless night.” He called the people together and did as she said and when the blaze died down, there upon the stones, with every twist and fiber showing perfectly, lay a rope of ashes.

The governor was pleased at the wit of the youth and praised greatly, but he demanded to know where he had obtained his wisdom. “Alas! Alas!” cried the farmer, “the truth must be told!” and with deep bows he related his story. The governor listened and then meditated in silence. Finally he lifted his head. “Shining needs more than strength of youth,” he said gravely. “Ah, that I should have forgotten the well-known saying, “with the crown of snow, there cometh wisdom!” That very hour the cruel law was abolished, and custom drifted into as far a past that only legends remain.

The Aged Mother was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Sat, May 11, 2019

Note Well: some of the arcane words that were used in the original English translation were replaced with their modern-day equivalents.

This story is featured in our collection of Short Short Stories to read when you have five minutes to spare and Short Stories for Middle School II

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A New Year’s Gift

by Guy de Maupassant

A New Year’s Gift is a story about infidelity and whether a woman’s risks for love match her lover’s loyalty.
“I wished for a New Year’s gift–the gift of your heart.”

An illustration for the story A New Year's Gift by the author Guy de Maupassant
Gabriel Metsu, Man Writing a Letter, 1650s

Jacques de Randal, having dined at home alone, told his valet he might go out, and he sat down at his table to write some letters.

He ended every year in this manner, writing and dreaming. He reviewed the events of his life since last New Year’s Day, things that were now all over and dead; and, in proportion as the faces of his friends rose up before his eyes, he wrote them a few lines, a cordial New Year’s greeting on the first of January.

So he sat down, opened a drawer, took out of it a woman’s photograph, gazed at it a few moments, and kissed it. Then, having laid it beside a sheet of notepaper, he began:

MY DEAR IRENE: You must by this time have received the little souvenir I sent, you addressed to the maid. I have shut myself up this evening in order to tell you—-“

The pen here ceased to move. Jacques rose up and began walking up and down the room.

For the last ten months he had had a sweetheart, not like the others, a woman with whom one engages in a passing intrigue, of the theatrical world or the demi-monde, but a woman whom he loved and won. He was no longer a young man, although he was still comparatively young for a man, and he looked on life seriously in a positive and practical spirit.

Accordingly, he drew up the balance sheet of his passion, as he drew up every year the balance sheet of friendships that were ended or freshly contracted, of circumstances and persons that had entered into his life.

His first ardor of love having grown calmer, he asked himself with the precision of a merchant making a calculation what was the state of his heart with regard to her, and he tried to form an idea of what it would be in the future.

He found there a great and deep affection; made up of tenderness, gratitude and the thousand subtleties which give birth to long and powerful attachments.

A ring at the bell made him start. He hesitated. Should he open the door? But he said to himself that one must always open the door on New Year’s night, to admit the unknown who is passing by and knocks, no matter who it may be.

So he took a wax candle, passed through the antechamber, drew back the bolts, turned the key, pulled the door back, and saw his sweetheart standing pale as a corpse, leaning against the wall.

He stammered:

“What is the matter with you?”

She replied:

“Are you alone?”


“Without servants?”


“You are not going out?”


She entered with the air of a woman who knew the house. As soon as she was in the drawing-room, she sank down on the sofa, and, covering her face with her hands, began to weep bitterly.

He knelt down at her feet, and tried to remove her hands from her eyes, so that he might look at them, and exclaimed:

“Irene, Irene, what is the matter with you? I implore you to tell me what is the matter with you?”

Then, amid her sobs, she murmured:

“I can no longer live like this.”

“Live like this? What do you mean?”

“Yes. I can no longer live like this. I have endured so much. He struck me this afternoon.”

“Who? Your husband?”

“Yes, my husband.”


He was astonished, having never suspected that her husband could be brutal. He was a man of the world, of the better class, a clubman, a lover of horses, a theatergoer and an expert swordsman; he was known, talked about, appreciated everywhere, having very courteous manners, a very mediocre intellect, an absence of education and of the real culture needed in order to think like all well-bred people, and finally a respect for conventionalities.

He appeared to devote himself to his wife, as a man ought to do in the case of wealthy and well-bred people. He displayed enough of anxiety about her wishes, her health, her dresses, and, beyond that, left her perfectly free.

Randal, having become Irene’s friend, had a right to the affectionate hand-clasp which every husband endowed with good manners owes to his wife’s intimate acquaintance. Then, when Jacques, after having been for some time the friend, became the lover, his relations with the husband were more cordial, as is fitting.

Jacques had never dreamed that there were storms in this household, and he was bewildered at this unexpected revelation.

He asked:

“How did it happen? Tell me.”

Thereupon she related a long story, the entire history of her life since the day of her marriage, the first disagreement arising out of a mere nothing, then becoming accentuated at every new difference of opinion between two dissimilar dispositions.

Then came quarrels, a complete separation, not apparent, but real; next, her husband showed himself aggressive, suspicious, violent. Now, he was jealous, jealous of Jacques, and that very day, after a scene, he had struck her.

She added with decision: “I will not go back to him. Do with me what you like.”

Jacques sat down opposite to her, their knees touching. He took her hands:

“My dear love, you are going to commit a gross, an irreparable folly. If you want to leave your husband, put him in the wrong, so that your position as a woman of the world may be saved.”

She asked, as she looked at him uneasily:

“Then, what do you advise me?”

“To go back home and to put up with your life there till the day when you can obtain either a separation or a divorce, with the honors of war.”

“Is not this thing which you advise me to do a little cowardly?”

“No; it is wise and sensible. You have a high position, a reputation to protect, friends to preserve and relations to deal with. You must not lose all these through a mere caprice.”

She rose up, and said with violence:

“Well, no! I cannot stand it any longer! It is at an end! it is at an end!”

Then, placing her two hands on her lover’s shoulders, and looking him straight in the face, she asked:

“Do you love me?”


“Really and truly?”


“Then take care of me.”

He exclaimed:

“Take care of you? In my own house? Here? Why, you are mad. It would mean losing you forever; losing you beyond hope of recall! You are mad!”

She replied, slowly and seriously, like a woman who feels the weight of her words:

“Listen, Jacques. He has forbidden me to see you again, and I will not play this comedy of coming secretly to your house. You must either lose me or take me.”

“My dear Irene, in that case, obtain your divorce, and I will marry you.”

“Yes, you will marry me in–two years at the soonest. Yours is a patient love.”

“Look here! Reflect! If you remain here he’ll come to-morrow to take you away, seeing that he is your husband, seeing that he has right and law on his side.”

“I did not ask you to keep me in your own house, Jacques, but to take me anywhere you like. I thought you loved me enough to do that. I have made a mistake. Good-by!”

She turned round and went toward the door so quickly that he was only able to catch hold of her when she was outside the room:

“Listen, Irene.”

She struggled, and would not listen to him. Her eyes were full of tears, and she stammered:

“Let me alone! let me alone! let me alone!”

He made her sit down by force, and once more falling on his knees at her feet, he now brought forward a number of arguments and counsels to make her understand the folly and terrible risk of her project. He omitted nothing which he deemed necessary to convince her, finding even in his very affection for her incentives to persuasion.

As she remained silent and cold as ice, he begged of her, implored of her to listen to him, to trust him, to follow his advice.

When he had finished speaking, she only replied:

“Are you disposed to let me go away now? Take away your hands, so that I may rise to my feet.”

“Look here, Irene.”

“Will you let me go?”

“Irene–is your resolution irrevocable?”

“Will you let me go.”

“Tell me only whether this resolution, this mad resolution of yours, which you will bitterly regret, is irrevocable?”

“Yes–let me go!”

“Then stay. You know well that you are at home here. We shall go away to-morrow morning.”

She rose to her feet in spite of him, and said in a hard tone:

“No. It is too late. I do not want sacrifice; I do not want devotion.”

“Stay! I have done what I ought to do; I have said what I ought to say. I have no further responsibility on your behalf. My conscience is at peace. Tell me what you want me to do, and I will obey.”‘

She resumed her seat, looked at him for a long time, and then asked, in a very calm voice:

“Well, then, explain.”

“Explain what? What do you wish me to explain?”

“Everything–everything that you thought about before changing your mind. Then I will see what I ought to do.”

“But I thought about nothing at all. I had to warn you that you were going to commit an act of folly. You persist; then I ask to share in this act of folly, and I even insist on it.”

“It is not natural to change one’s mind so quickly.”

“Listen, my dear love. It is not a question here of sacrifice or devotion. On the day when I realized that I loved you, I said to myself what every lover ought to say to himself in the same case: ‘The man who loves a woman, who makes an effort to win her, who gets her, and who takes her, enters into a sacred contract with himself and with her. That is, of course, in dealing with a woman like you, not a woman with a fickle heart and easily impressed.’

“Marriage which has a great social value, a great legal value, possesses in my eyes only a very slight moral value, taking into account the conditions under which it generally takes place.

“Therefore, when a woman, united by this lawful bond, but having no attachment to her husband, whom she cannot love, a woman whose heart is free, meets a man whom she cares for, and gives herself to him, when a man who has no other tie, takes a woman in this way, I say that they pledge themselves toward each other by this mutual and free agreement much more than by the ‘Yes’ uttered in the presence of the mayor.

“I say that, if they are both honorable persons, their union must be more intimate, more real, more wholesome, than if all the sacraments had consecrated it.

“This woman risks everything. And it is exactly because she knows it, because she gives everything, her heart, her body, her soul, her honor, her life, because she has foreseen all miseries, all dangers all catastrophes, because she dares to do a bold act, an intrepid act, because she is prepared, determined to brave everything–her husband, who might kill her, and society, which may cast her out. This is why she is worthy of respect in the midst of her conjugal infidelity; this is why her lover, in taking her, should also foresee everything, and prefer her to every one else whatever may happen. I have nothing more to say. I spoke in the beginning like a sensible man whose duty it was to warn you; and now I am only a man–a man who loves you–Command, and I obey.”

Radiant, she closed his mouth with a kiss, and said in a low tone:

“It is not true, darling! There is nothing the matter! My husband does not suspect anything. But I wanted to see, I wanted to know, what you would do I wished for a New Year’s gift–the gift of your heart–another gift besides the necklace you sent me. You have given it to me. Thanks! thanks! God be thanked for the happiness you have given me!”

A New Year’s Gift was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Sat, Dec 29, 2018

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The Legend of Babouscka

by Anonymous

The Legend of Babouscka is an old Russian tale in which an old woman missed the chance to travel with the three wise men, then got lost on her way to deliver the Christ-Child gifts. She may be looking for him still, leaving gifts for other children along the way. The story was published in The Children’s Book of Christmas Stories (1913).

An illustration for the story The Legend of Babouscka by the author Anonymous
George Morland winter landscape

It was the night the dear Christ-Child came to Bethlehem. In a country far away from Him, an old, old woman named Babouscka sat in her snug little house by her warm fire. The wind was drifting the snow outside and howling down the chimney, but it only made Babouscka’s fire burn more brightly.

“How glad I am that I may stay indoors,” said Babouscka, holding her hands out to the bright blaze.

But suddenly she heard a loud rap at her door. She opened it and her candle shone on three old men standing outside in the snow. Their beards were as white as the snow, and so long that they reached the ground. Their eyes shone kindly in the light of Babouscka’s candle, and their arms were full of precious things—boxes of jewels, and sweet-smelling oils, and ointments.

“We have travelled far, Babouscka,” they said, “and we stop to tell you of the Baby Prince born this night in Bethlehem. He comes to rule the world and teach all men to be loving and true. We carry Him gifts. Come with us, Babouscka.”

But Babouscka looked at the drifting snow, and then inside at her cozy room and the crackling fire. “It is too late for me to go with you, good sirs,” she said, “the weather is too cold.” She went inside again and shut the door, and the old men journeyed on to Bethlehem without her. But as Babouscka sat by her fire, rocking, she began to think about the Little Christ-Child, for she loved all babies.

“To-morrow I will go to find Him,” she said; “to-morrow, when it is light, and I will carry Him some toys.”

So when it was morning Babouscka put on her long cloak and took her staff, and filled her basket with the pretty things a baby would like—gold balls, and wooden toys, and strings of silver cobwebs—and she set out to find the Christ-Child.

But, oh, Babouscka had forgotten to ask the three old men the road to Bethlehem, and they travelled so far through the night that she could not overtake them. Up and down the road she hurried, through woods and fields and towns, saying to whomsoever she met: “I go to find the Christ-Child. Where does He lie? I bring some pretty toys for His sake.”

But no one could tell her the way to go, and they all said: “Farther on, Babouscka, farther on.” So she travelled on and on and on for years and years—but she never found the little Christ-Child.

They say that old Babouscka is travelling still, looking for Him. When it comes Christmas Eve, and the children are lying fast asleep, Babouscka comes softly through the snowy fields and towns, wrapped in her long cloak and carrying her basket on her arm. With her staff she raps gently at the doors and goes inside and holds her candle close to the little children’s faces.

“Is He here?” she asks. “Is the little Christ-Child here?” And then she turns sorrowfully away again, crying: “Farther on, farther on!” But before she leaves she takes a toy from her basket and lays it beside the pillow for a Christmas gift. “For His sake,” she says softly, and then hurries on through the years and forever in search of the little Christ-Child.

Enjoy our collection of Christmas Stories and Carols.

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The Night After Christmas

by Anonymous

The Night After Christmas was published in Dear Santa Claus: Charming Holiday Stories for Boys and Girls (1901) by W.B. Conkey Company, author unattributed.

An illustration for the story The Night After Christmas by the author Anonymous

'TWAS the night after Christmas, and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring—excepting a mouse.
The stockings were flung in haste over the chair,
For hopes of St. Nicholas were no longer there.

The children were restlessly tossing in bed,
For the pie and the candy were heavy as lead;
While mamma in her kerchief, and I in my gown,
Had just made up our minds that we would not lie down,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I went with a dash,
Flung open the shutter, and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of noon-day to objects below,
When what to my long anxious eyes should appear
But a horse and a sleigh, both old-fashioned and queer;
With a little old driver, so solemn and slow,
I knew at a glance it must be Dr. Brough.


I drew in my head, and was turning around,
When upstairs came the Doctor, with scarcely a sound.
He wore a thick overcoat, made long ago,
And the beard on his chin was white with the snow.


He spoke a few words, and went straight to his work;
He felt all the pulses,—then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
With a nod of his head to the chimney he goes:—

"A spoonful of oil, ma'am, if you have it handy;
No nuts and no raisins, no pies and no candy.
These tender young stomachs cannot well digest
All the sweets that they get; toys and books are the best.
But I know my advice will not find many friends,
For the custom of Christmas the other way tends.


The fathers and mothers, and Santa Claus, too,
Are exceedingly blind. Well, a good-night to you!"
And I heard him exclaim, as he drove out of sight:
"These feastings and candies make Doctors' bills right!"

The Night After Christmas was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Wed, Dec 26, 2018

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A Hint for Next Christmas

by A.A. Milne

A Hint for Next Christmas is Milne’s essay about the merits of small gifts and rethinking the custom of Christmas cards. Published in his collection, If I May in 1920, and featured in Off-Beat Christmas Stories

An illustration for the story A Hint for Next Christmas by the author A.A. Milne
Minnie Cuningham Montgomerie, Stare, Scotland, 1901

There has been some talk lately of the standardization of golf balls, but a more urgent reform is the standardization of Christmas presents. It is no good putting this matter off; let us take it in hand now, so that we shall be in time for next Christmas.

My crusade is on behalf of those who spend their Christmas away from home. Last year I returned (with great difficulty) from such an adventure and I am more convinced than ever that Christmas presents should conform to a certain standard of size. My own little offerings were thoughtfully chosen. A match-box, a lace handkerchief or two, a cigarette-holder, a pencil and note-book, Gems from Wilcox, and so on; such gifts not only bring pleasure (let us hope) to the recipient, but take up a negligible amount of room in one’s bag, and add hardly anything to the weight of it. Of course, if your fellow-visitor says to you, “How sweet of you to give me such a darling little handkerchief–it’s just what I wanted–how ever did you think of it?” you do not reply, “Well, it was a choice between that and a hundredweight of coal, and I’ll give you two guesses why I chose the handkerchief.” No; you smile modestly and say, “As soon as I saw it, I felt somehow that it was yours”; after which you are almost in a position to ask your host casually where he keeps the mistletoe.

But it is almost a certainty that the presents you receive will not have been chosen with such care. Probably the young son of the house has been going in for carpentry lately, and in return for your tie-pin he gives you a wardrobe of his own manufacture. You thank him heartily, you praise its figure, but all the time you are wishing that it had chosen some other occasion. Your host gives you a statuette or a large engraving; somebody else turns up with a large brass candle-stick. It is all very gratifying, but you have got to get back to London somehow, and, thankful though you are not to have received the boar-hound or parrot-in-cage which seemed at one time to be threatening, you cannot help wishing that the limits of size for a Christmas present had been decreed by some authority who was familiar with the look of your dressing-case.

Obviously, too, there should be a standard value for a certain type of Christmas present. One may give what one will to one’s own family or particular friends; that is all right. But in a Christmas house-party there is a pleasant interchange of parcels, of which the string and the brown paper and the kindly thought are the really important ingredients, and the gift inside is nothing more than an excuse for these things. It is embarrassing for you if Jones has apologized for his brown paper with a hundred cigars, and you have only excused yourself with twenty-five cigarettes; perhaps still more embarrassing if it is you who have lost so heavily on the exchange. An understanding that the contents were to be worth five shillings exactly would avoid this embarassment.

And now I am reminded of the ingenuity of a friend of mine, William by name, who arrived at a large country house for Christmas without any present in his bag. He had expected neither to give nor to receive anything, but to his horror he discovered on the 24th that everybody was preparing a Christmas present for him, and that it was taken for granted that he would require a little privacy and brown paper on Christmas Eve for the purpose of addressing his own offerings to others. He had wild thoughts of telegraphing to London for something to be sent down, and spoke to other members of the house-party in order to discover what sort of presents would be suitable.

“What are you giving our host P” he asked one of them.

“Mary and I are giving him a book,” said John, referring to his wife.

William then approached the youngest son of the house, and discovered that he and his next brother Dick were sharing in this, that, and the other. When he had heard this, William retired to his room and thought profoundly. He was the first down to breakfast on Christmas morning. All the places at the table were piled high with presents. He looked at John’s place. The top parcel said, “To John and Mary from Charles.” William took out his fountain-pen and added a couple of words to the inscription. It then read, “To John and Mary from Charles and William,” and in William’s opinion looked just as effective as before. He moved on to the next place. “To Angela from Father,” said the top parcel. “And William,” wrote William. At his hostess’ place he hesitated for a moment. The first present there was for “Darling Mother, from her loving children.” It did not seem that an “and William” was quite suitable. But his hostess was not to be deprived of William’s kindly thought; twenty seconds later the handkerchiefs “from John and Mary and William” expressed all the nice things which he was feeling for her. He passed on to the next place….

It is, of course, impossible to thank every donor of a joint gift; one simply thanks the first person whose eye one happens to catch. Sometimes William’s eye was caught, sometimes not. But he was spared all embarrassment; and I can recommend his solution of the problem with perfect confidence to those who may be in a similar predicament next Christmas.

There is a minor sort of Christmas present about which also a few words must be said; I refer to the Christmas card.

The Christmas card habit is a very pleasant one, but it, too, needs to be disciplined. I doubt if many people understand its proper function. This is partly the result of our bringing up; as children we were allowed (quite rightly) to run wild in the Christmas card shop, with one of two results. Either we still run wild, or else the reaction has set in and we avoid the Christmas card shop altogether. We convey our printed wishes for a happy Christmas to everybody or to nobody. This is a mistake. In our middle-age we should discriminate.

The child does not need to discriminate. It has two shillings in the hand and about twenty-four relations. Even in my time two shillings did not go far among twenty-four people. But though presents were out of the question, one could get twenty-four really beautiful Christmas cards for the money, and if some of them were ha’penny ones, then one could afford real snow on a threepenny one for the most important uncle, meaning by “most important,” perhaps (but I have forgotten now), the one most likely to be generous in return. Of the fun of choosing those twenty-four cards I need not now speak, nor of the best method of seeing to it that somebody else paid for the necessary twenty-four stamps. But certainly one took more trouble in suiting the tastes of those who were to receive the cards than the richest and most leisured grown-up would take in selecting a diamond necklace for his wife’s stocking or motor-cars for his sons-in-law. It was not only a question of snow, but also of the words in which the old, old wish was expressed. If the aunt who was known to be fond of poetry did not get something suitable from Eliza Cook, one might regard her Christmas as ruined. How could one grudge the trouble necessary to make her Christmas really happy for her? One might even explore the fourpenny box.

But in middle-age–by which I mean anything over twenty and under ninety–one knows too many people. One cannot give them a Christmas card each; there is not enough powdered glass to go round. One has to discriminate, and the way in which most of us discriminate is either to send no cards to anybody or else to send them to the first twenty or fifty or hundred of our friends (according to our income and energy) whose names come into our minds. Such cards are meaningless; but if we sent our Christmas cards to the right people, we could make the simple words upon them mean something very much more than a mere wish that the recipient’s Christmas shall be “merry” (which it will be anyhow, if he likes merriness) and his New Year “bright” (which, let us hope, it will not be).

“A merry Christmas,” with an old church in the background and a robin in the foreground, surrounded by a wreath of holly-leaves. It might mean so much. What I feel that it ought to mean is something like this:–

“You live at Potters Bar aStnd I live at Petersham. Of course, if we did happen to meet at the Marble Arch one day, it would be awfully jolly, and we could go and have lunch together somewhere, and talk about old times. But our lives have drifted apart since those old days. It is partly the fault of the train-service, no doubt. Glad as I should be to see you, I don’t like to ask you to come all the way to Petersham to dinner, and if you asked me to Potters Bar–well, I should come, but it would be something of a struggle, and I thank you for not asking me. Besides, we have made different friends now, and our tastes are different. After we had talked about the old days, I doubt if we should have much to say to each other. Each of us would think the other a bit of a bore, and our wives would wonder why we had ever been friends at Liverpool. But don’t think I have forgotten you. I just send this card to let you know that I am still alive, still at the same address, and that I still remember you. No need, if we ever do meet, or if we ever want each other’s help, to begin by saying: ‘I suppose you have quite forgotten those old days at Liverpool.’ We have neither of us forgotten; and so let us send to each other, once a year, a sign that we have not forgotten, and that once upon a time we were friends. ‘A merry Christmas to you.’”

That is what a Christmas card should say. It is absurd to say this to a man or woman whom one is perpetually ringing up on the telephone; to somebody whom one met last week or with whom one is dining the week after; to a man whom one may run across at the club on almost any day, or a woman whom one knows to shop daily at the same stores as oneself. It is absurd to say it to a correspondent to whom one often writes. Let us reserve our cards for the old friends who have dropped out of our lives, and let them reserve their cards for us.

But, of course, we must have kept their addresses; otherwise we have to print our cards publicly–as I am doing now. “Old friends will please accept this, the only intimation.”

This essay is featured in our collection of Off-Beat Christmas Stories. If you enjoyed it, try H.H. Munro (SAKI)’s story, Reginald on Christmas Presents

Thank you for reading 🙂